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Caverns offer blast from historic past

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When the guide turned off the lights, the darkness was absolute.

You literally could not see your hand in front of your face.

But when you’re 110 feet below the surface of the earth, what can you expect?

Then she turned on a penlight, and the cave walls were illuminated almost as though she had a powerful lantern.

Ready to rock?

What: Indiana Caverns

Where: 1267 Green Acres Drive SW, Corydon, IN 47112

Contact: 812-734-1200, indianacaverns.com

Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. April through October, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. November-March

Admission: $18, $9 for ages 4-12 ($2 discount per person coupon available in “Harrison County Visitor Guide” available at the tourism office in Corydon)

This taste of total, subterranean darkness is just one of the features of a tour of Indiana Caverns near Corydon, the state’s newest commercial cave.

What really sets this cave apart, though, is evidence of Ice Age mammal activity, in particular bones of the pig-like peccary. Cave explorers found hundreds of bones, and researchers continue to unearth more.

During the last Ice Age, the cave had a natural opening. The peccaries walked in, fell into the deeper part of the cave and were unable to escape. There they died, and their bones lay undisturbed until their discovery just a few years ago.

Visitors also will see areas where Ice Age bears slept and evidence of ancient bison.

Guides point out and explain these features and their history.

The cave is part of the Binkley system, which at the moment has 37,705 miles of mapped, interconnected passageways, making it the 11th-longest cave system in the United States. But the “at the moment” part is crucial, as cavers are still mapping passages and have expectations of linking into another, previously mapped cave, which would move the Binkley system to at least No. 9 on the list.

Indiana Caverns allows visitors into a small, easily traversed portion of the cave system. A system of metal walkways and stairs keeps visitors from slipping, sliding and getting muddy and helps protect the cave itself from damage done, even inadvertently, by visitors.

While the entertainment value of navigating underground passages and viewing cave features is a major reason people come to caves, education is a major part of the mission of Indiana Caverns. It starts above ground in the visitor center. On the wall is large map showing the extent of the Binkley system, with key points, such as Indiana Caverns, labeled.

The cave owner plans to add another large painting showing a cross-section of the cave portion people will visit.

Tour groups leave every 20 to 30 minutes. Visitors first view a short film that discusses how caves are formed and how the Indiana Caverns segment was discovered. Then they enter through a set of doors that act as an airlock, keeping the cave’s atmosphere as natural as possible.

Once in the cave itself, visitors will see a four-story tall waterfall and then descend several flights of stairs to the cave floor. While the cave clearly is not wheelchair-accessible, anyone who can climb a few flights of stairs should have no trouble on the tour.

A tour takes visitors on a 2,000-foot-long trip into the cave and then back. But the return trip is not simply a long exit. Guides point out new features and reinforce lessons as the group walks along.

Visitors will see typical cave features, such as stalagmites, stalactites, columns, flowstone and mineral deposits.

A special aspect of the tour is a ride in a boat on an underground river. This gives visitors a clearer idea of how water forms the large passageways.

Above ground and outside the visitor center, a surface trail takes visitors to locations directly above the subterranean highlights. Signs offer additional information.

Indiana Caverns emphasizes education as well as entertainment. But you will find no underground laser light show and phony displays. The goal is to teach visitors about the reality of how caves form and their role in nature.

Carol Groves, marketing and communications director for Indiana Caverns, said the caverns’ goal is to become the best private interpretive show cave in the country in the next three to five years. Thus the cave is a work in progress.

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